The Slaughterhouse

Monkeying With Gibbon’s

America's decline and fall -- exclusively under center-right Republican administrations.

By From the May 2011 issue

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The Decline and Fall of the American Republic
By Bruce Ackerman
(Belknap/Harvard University Press, 270 pages, $25.95)

"Bruce Ackerman is worried," the opening sentence of the publisher's blurb accompanying his latest book informs us. "He is worried that the Office of the President has gotten too large and we will not retain our democracy if the president becomes too powerful."

To borrow a reaction from Homer Simpson, "Doh!"

The delicate -- and never static -- institutional weights and counterweights that have sustained American democracy for more than two centuries always coexist in a state of tension. We have had weak presidents (think feeble bunglers like James Buchanan and Jimmy Carter), strong presidents (Washington, Lincoln, and Reagan, all of whom used strength of character, sense of purpose, and a positive set of values to prevail over forces of disunity or defeatism), and even a few dictatorial ones (Andrew Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt come immediately to mind). We have also had dramatic examples of weakness, strength, and overreach in the legislative and judicial branches. Power, after all, is an equal opportunity corrupter. It seduces susceptible executives, lawmakers, and judges alike -- not to mention a wide, often sordid array of business, labor, social activist, and other special interests advocates. It can even fog the vision and warp the judgment of well-intended university professors who ought to know better.

Bruce Ackerman, who occupies Yale University's Sterling Chair of Law and Political Science, is a good example of the latter. Although he seems to have slept through the enormous nanny state power grabs that have left our country in a state of deepening fiscal crisis, his liberal antennae are all aquiver over "three serious outbreaks of illegality over the past half-century -- Watergate, Iran-Contra, and the War on Terror." How serious the first two were is debatable and his blanket characterization of the War on Terror as an "outbreak of illegality" is downright goofy; it also may be no coincidence that Professor Ackerman's selective catalogue of executive crimes is linked exclusively to center-right Republican administrations. But then, for Professor Ackerman, legitimate executive power is not so much a question of "how much" as it is of "what for." Viewed from his particular ivory tower, presidential powers used to rally popular support for Ackerman-approved purposes are nice; the same presidential powers used for a non-Ackerman agenda are naughty.

Let him speak for himself. In this rather florid, perhaps unintentionally revealing passage of The Decline and Fall of the American Republic, the author lets it all hang out:

My discussion takes the form of classic tragedy: it's not as if there is one aspect of the presidency that is a force for good, and another a force for evil. The very same features [his italics] that have made the presidency into the platform for credible tribunes of the People, like Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt, are also conspiring, under different conditions, to make it into a vehicle for demagogic populism and lawlessness in the century ahead.

If all this sounds familiar to you, there's a reason. It's the kind of thing we always hear from liberal academia whenever public opinion and elective government are trending away from its own rigid norms of political correctness. As Professor Ackerman himself concedes, "Arthur Schlesinger sounded the alarm in his Imperial Presidency a generation ago," specifically in 1973 when the country seemed to be undergoing an earlier center-right "silent majority" realignment. Professor Schlesinger, who rejoiced in his role as an intellectual camp follower in an administration where the Department of Justice was run by a ruthless younger brother of the president, was just as selective in his alarm about presidential power abuse then as Professor Ackerman is today.

If the Ackerman diagnosis is dubious, some of his proposed remedies amount to outright quackery, little more than a liberal academic's wish list for unelected, unaccountable power. They include the creation -- no doubt by a learned elite -- of new Canons of Military Ethics (Professor Ackerman sees the current military establishment as a sinister threat to democracy), an appointive "Supreme Tribunal" (to serve as "judges for the executive branch, not lawyers for the sitting president") and -- I'll bet you could see this one coming a mile away -- a government-funded "National Endowment for Journalism" that would selectively reward Internet news outlets "to support investigative reporting that generates broad public interest" that "won't be readily overwhelmed by the next authoritarian push from the [post-Obama] presidency."

Under this last proposal, Internet users would "click a box whenever they read a news article that contributes to their political understanding. These reader ‘votes' would be transmitted to [the new Endowment], which would compensate the news organization originating the article on the basis of a strict mathematical formula: the more clicks, the bigger the check from the Endowment." Talk about checkbook journalism: ironically, this suggestion comes from the same author who repeatedly decries the impact of superficial, snap public opinion polls on the decision-making process of an American public supposedly growing more and more gullible. In most other respects, however, Professor Ackerman is all too consistent with his nostrums. Each of the three supposedly pro-democracy innovations cited above would involve further layers of government, shaped or staffed by unelected elites -- many of them, no doubt, politically correct grazers from the groves of academe.

BELIEVE IT OR NOT, these are among the more serious suggestions Professor Ackerman makes in this slender tome, a réchauffé version of a series of Tanner Lectures he delivered at Princeton last year. If the volume itself is modest, its title is not. Consider this: while Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire weighs in at 1,309 pages of small, double column print in the 19th-century edition in my library, there are only 188 pages of actual text (plus an additional 82 pages of notes, index, and acknowledgments) in his grandly dubbed The Decline and Fall of the American Republic. But, then, titular overkill seems to be a habit with Professor Ackerman. One of his earlier books is modestly titled The Failure of the Founding Fathers -- what a pity the Prof wasn't there at the time to set them straight!

None of this is to say that growing government power is not a threat to our individual rights and our proudly independent American way of life. All three of the traditionally defined branches of the federal government -- executive, legislative, and judicial -- are prone to the abuse of power. Why do you suppose the Founding Fathers triangulated them in the first place? But the biggest threat of all doesn't come from transient occupants of the White House, the court house, or the legislature. It comes from the unofficial but very real and permanent "fourth arm" of government: the ever-expanding roll of entitlements, requirements, and prohibitions dispensed and enforced by an ever-expanding number of federal departments, agencies, bureaus, endowments, and foundations manned by an ever-expanding army of unelected bureaucrats.

In the end, it is this fiscal and regulatory Leviathan -- the ruinous modern equivalent of the subsidized "bread and circuses" of ancient Rome so brilliantly depicted by Edward Gibbon -- that could lead to our own very real decline and fall. 

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About the Author

Aram Bakshian Jr. served as an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan and writes frequently on politics, history, gastronomy, and the arts.